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Dialogue vs. Subtext in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

by Jamie Lammers about a year ago in book reviews
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Joyce Carol Oates uses dialogue and subtext to her advantage to portray the fear of being sexually abused in her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Talking first about what is actually said by the primary characters of the story, we see the fifteen-year-old girl Connie trying to ask this strange boy that arrives on her driveway about why he’s there. This boy, who reveals his name as Arnold Friend, reveals how much she has heard about this girl and how interested he is in her. She dodges the fact that her name is Connie and tries to understand where this boy is taking her but doesn’t get any answers from him. Eventually, her anxiety about Arnold escalates so much that she threatens to call the police on him, and he retaliates by saying he will come into her house if she calls the police. By the end of the story, she unsuccessfully tries to call for help but is eventually taken by the young boy.

The subtext in this story is really what sticks out and shows the inner thoughts of Connie in particular. We see her externally trying to avoid coming in close contact with Arnold, while also internally laughing at some of the things he does. She sees things like “DONE BY CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER” written on a dent on the side of his car; “Connie had to laugh at that.” However, she’s still very hesitant to step outside her house, and “she dawdled in the doorway and wouldn’t come down or go back inside.” She’s unsure about this boy, wanting to know more but hesitant to let her guard down too much. After a while, this proves to have been the right action to take. At one point, she takes a good look at his face and “could see then that he wasn’t a kid, he was much older -- thirty, maybe more.” With that reveal, the entire tone of the story completely changes. Arnold revealing how much she knows about Connie becomes increasingly creepy, as we are now pretty confident that this is a grown man stalking a teenage girl. Connie then starts thinking about everything that could happen, and while Arnold simply keeps saying that he will hold her “so tight [she] won’t think [she has] to try to get away or pretend anything,” and the way he says this incredibly unnerving dialogue, we recognize that he is actually trying to rape her. At the end of the story, when she gives in to him after she tries to call the police, we recognize that she has no energy left to fight him back, and she now recognizes there is probably no way for her to get out of this situation. Arnold is successful, and the reader is disgusted for realizing that.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a haunting portrayal of sexual assault that leaves an impact on the reader through what is simply suggested rather than what is actually shown or said. While the characters continuously repeat themselves out loud to each other in their dialogue in order to learn more about each other and convince the other that they’re in the right, the subtext shows the more pressing conflict to both characters: Arnold trying to hook up with a girl who is not interested and incredibly young and Connie desperately trying to save herself recognizing the situation she is now in. It’s traumatizing not because of what is shown or said, but because of how the writing portrays the subtext of the situation and what it decides not to show or even fully explain. In this case, Oates shows us our imagination can sometimes be more horrifying than actual images.

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Jamie Lammers

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